When people of a certain generation wax nostalgic for a simpler time in this country, they’re usually wistfully recalling with rose tinted glasses a childhood during a very gray era. The 1950s might have been a moment of American economic prosperity, but socially it was as dark as the most belligerent winter.
This is likely the attraction Carol director Todd Haynes found to Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt and what gives the movie its authenticity. Highsmith wrote a crisp narrative about a forbidden lesbian love in proper New York society during a period where Doris Day and Rock Hudson movies would be considered risqué. And that source material’s quiet, muffled scream of indignation can still be distinctly heard in this 2015 movie, even if it also must now bypass the modern cinematic artifice that Haynes piles on to this gorgeously frigid film.
Carol is perhaps the most visually stunning of Haynes’ films to date. Set primarily during the magic time between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the 16mm photography realized by the filmmaker and his cinematographer Edward Lachman might have been chiseled out of ice and roasting walnuts. The effect is evocative of a painfully unjust moment in history that was buried under false warmth and comfort, yet it also at times can feel akin to being trapped inside a snow globe.
Carol is a beautiful looking work of art, but the reason its 1950s sexual limbo strikes a chord truer than Haynes’ previous treatise on the subject, Far From Heaven, probably has much to do with Highsmith’s very knowing and contemporary tale serving as in the inspiration (Far From Heaven was, intentionally, a precious reversal of an actual 1955 Rock Hudson film).
But the film also has two other achingly useful assets: Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.
Blanchett is unsurprisingly divine as Carol Aird, a WASPy New York City socialite who moved out of the city with her husband Harge Aird (Kyle Chandler). But much to the aggrievement of Harge, she then forced him to move out even further because of her true feelings. Her genuine affection seems to first apply to her daughter Rindy (Kk Heim), and then to her childhood best friend and ex-lover, Abby (Sarah Paulson). For Harge, she seems to feel mostly pity that he is still in love with her—at least until he decides to take his daughter to see his parents one Christmas vacation and then slaps Carol with a new wrinkle to their divorce: he wants sole custody due to her “pattern of behavior.”
That pattern includes Therese Belivet (Mara), a holiday clerk at a posh department store. Despite her aureate name, Therese is an unhappy, repressed young woman who seems to be going down the same path as the much more sophisticated Carol with a tentative engagement in the works.
Therese also has an immediate and unshakably shared desire for Carol. The latter feels it too when she buys from the shy shop girl a Christmas present for her daughter—and along with her home address for the gift’s delivery, Carol just so happens to leave her leather gloves too.
As Harge later says about his wife, “Bold.”
As the divorce gets uglier, the new romance between Carol and her protégé blossoms into the only good thing in either’s adult life. So of course, it must be destroyed.
Carol makes an excellent point about its setting and the unspoken passions and desires that draw people together. It is also on those counts that both Blanchett and Mara shine. Movies with Blanchett have often had an air of old school glamour in her presence, but she bottles that mystique into a cinematic perfume here. As both the wiser woman who knows what she wants in a world that refuses to let her have it, as well as the consummate professional housewife without a husband, she is pitch perfect—dispensing wisdom about love and mentoring Therese to not follow her own homebody evocation with nary a word of dialogue.
Mara also delivers an equally layered and surprisingly pensive performance as a girl who is absolutely terrified of her own sexuality and thus the entire world around her. For much of the film, Therese is either operating on fear or a wordless lust for Carol, all of which must be expressed through non-verbal movement despite the fact she hardly moves. If she did, people might catch on.
The film’s best scenes, including when they meet in the department store, are heightened by longing violins from composer Carter Burwell that weep almost silently for this quiet epic of emotion. It is also in these moments where Haynes beauitfully encapsulates the sensation of unquenchable desire with the most deceptively simple of compositions.
But that is perhaps why the film remains as frosty as the 1950s etiquette it seeks to both damn and eulogize with pretty imagery and sounds. Essentially a love story that runs entirely under the surface, Carol is an elegantly regal ornament. It demands admiration on the world-weary Carol’s terms. But perhaps it should have embraced more of Therese’s youthful drive.
The result is a wonderfully acted and staged film that is nonetheless painfully polite. The film is so restrained that Carol and Therese’s love feels as immaculately furnished as anything else in Carol’s home. Except for the fireplace; this movie’s temperature is too low for that.
This review was originally published on Oct. 11 after its New York Film Festival premiere.